Turkestan, Kazakhstan

August 2016

In the Kazakh desert lies a pilgrim city with mosques and mausoleums, some dating back to the 14th century. It is called Turkestan, not to be confused with the country Turkmenistan. Turkestan is a small town, which meant I could walk several times from my hotel in the centre to the famous Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi in the outskirts. The Mausoleum is huge, has painted walls and a decorated blue dome. During one visit I saw camels near it, making an even more exotic sight. I felt lucky, since I only got here by coincidence. My trip to Turkestan started 600 kilometers east in Almaty.

Almaty

I had just traveled from Kazakhstan’s futuristic new capital Astana to its pleasant former capital Almaty. I would spend a couple of days there before going further south into Kyrgyzstan. Almaty is a big city on the edge of the steppe and the mountains. My hostel was on the top floor of a high block of flats. It had a lounge area on the rooftop, from where I could see the mountains behind the city on one side and the flat horizon on the steppe on the other. Here I met a couple of travelers, among them a Scottish guy named Tim. Tim recommended Turkestan to me. I decided to join him to Turkestan when he found cheap flights to nearby Shymkent for the next day

A dodgy arrival in Turkestan

It took us a cheap flight with “Qazaq air”, a bus and a four hour train ride to reach Turkestan by midnight. After walking in the dark for a while we tried to get a taxi. An old Lada  without lights pushed the brakes to stop for us. This made another taxi, a white Lada, almost crash into it. Two guys came out of the white Lada and started an argument with the first taxi driver. The first taxi driver left, so we decided to go with the white Lada. Before taking us to the hotel our driver and his smoking friend needed to stop for gas. At the gas-station we realised that the car had no ignition: the driver had to connect wires to start the engine. Was this a stolen car? After the stop for fuel we arrived near our hotel, right next to a group of guys who appeared to know our driver and his companion. They then demanded twice the price we agreed on. This pissed Tim off, but I paid them anyway. I didn’t think the price - about two euros - was worth an argument with a gang on a dark street in a strange city.

Mausoleums, ruins and the heat

The next morning we walked to what Turkestan is famous for: the Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmad Yasavi. We could see its blue dome from far away. Walking amongst Turkestan’s mausoleums was tough due to the desert heat, but worth it. In the afternoon our hotel got us a taxi, a red Lada this time, to the ruins of Sauran. Sauran used to be a major city along the Silk-road until it was abandoned over four centuries ago. Now it’s a group of ruins, still surrounded by a high wall. Before we entered the gate of Sauran Tim and I agreed with the driver to wait for us. As we were the only people here and this was the desert, we had to rely on our driver and his red Lada. Fortunately the car was still there when we walked out of the gate.

Back in Turkestan I returned to the mausoleum by myself. During sunset there were fewer visitors here. Instead camels walked around the complex, eating from trees near the mausoleum. I found my perfect spot in Kazakhstan.